Deliberate Rest

Designing rest for a busy world

Category: Science (page 1 of 23)

“The idea here is not that we should start to off random senior scientists to make room for the new blood”. (Or is it?)

MIT's Stata Center
Stata Center, MIT

Inside Higher Ed reports on a new study by MIT professor Pierre Azoulay on the impact of the deaths of star scientists on their fields. It turns out, it’s not all bad (except for the star scientist in question, obviously):

For their study, Azoulay and his co-authors examined the relationship between the relatively early or sudden deaths of 452 eminent scientists between 1975 and 2003 and the subsequent “vitality” of the field, measured in publication rates and flow of federal funding.

The total sample of elite scientists was about 13,000, or about 5 percent of the total labor market. The average age of premature death was 61, and all scientists included in this subgroup were still active researchers before they died.

Following the deaths of star scientists, subfields saw an 8.6 percent increase in articles published by those scientists who had not previously collaborated with the late luminaries. Those papers were disproportionately likely to be highly cited. All effects are compared to control subfields, which are associated with superstars who did not die.

The effects were more pronounced for those who were previously “outsiders” to the subfields.

“To our surprise, it is not competitors from within a subfield that assume the mantle of leadership, but rather entrants from other fields that step in to fill the void created by a star’s absence,” the paper says. “Importantly, this surge in contributions from outsiders draws upon a different scientific corpus and is disproportionately likely to be highly cited.”

Here’s the abstract of the original article, available here.

We examine how the premature death of eminent life scientists alters the vitality of their fields. While the flow of articles by collaborators into affected fields decreases after the death of a star scientist, the flow of articles by non-collaborators increases markedly. This surge in contributions from outsiders draws upon a different scientific corpus and is disproportionately likely to be highly cited. While outsiders appear reluctant to challenge leadership within a field when the star is alive, the loss of a luminary provides an opportunity for fields to evolve in new directions that advance the frontier of knowledge.

This reminds me of something else life-science related: Margaret Heffernan’s work (described in this TED talk) on “superchickens,” and the importance of social cohesion over charisma in workplaces. She builds on the work of biologist William Muir, who:

wanted to know what could make his chickens more productive, so he devised a beautiful experiment. Chickens live in groups, so first of all, he selected just an average flock, and he let it alone for six generations. But then he created a second group of the individually most productive chickens — you could call them superchickens — and he put them together in a superflock, and each generation, he selected only the most productive for breeding.

After six generations had passed, what did he find? Well, the first group, the average group, was doing just fine. They were all plump and fully feathered and egg production had increased dramatically. What about the second group? Well, all but three were dead. They’d pecked the rest to death. The individually productive chickens had only achieved their success by suppressing the productivity of the rest….

[F]or the past 50 years, we’ve run most organizations and some societies along the superchicken model. We’ve thought that success is achieved by picking the superstars, the brightest men, or occasionally women, in the room, and giving them all the resources and all the power. And the result has been just the same as in William Muir’s experiment: aggression, dysfunction and waste. If the only way the most productive can be successful is by suppressing the productivity of the rest, then we badly need to find a better way to work and a richer way to live.

One striking feature of the companies I write about in SHORTER (US | UK) is that they avoid being superchicken organizations, and they use a variety of tools to make sure that they privilege cohesion and collaboration over heroic action. In fact, I first heard about Margaret Heffernan nd the superchicken phenomenon from Tash Walker, who moved her company to a 4-day week a couple years ago.

How much do we need to work to be happy?

One of the objections I sometimes get to the 4-day workweek runs something like this: Since we know that unemployment makes people unhappy, doesn’t this mean that reducing the length of the workweek will make people somewhat less happy?

This assumes that there’s a linear relationship between work time and well-being. If 0 hours/week creates very little well-being, and 40 hours/week creates N amount of well-being, might it be the case that 30 hours creates (3/4)N well-being?

There’s a group at Cambridge that’s been looking at exactly this question, and they have a new article asking “How much paid work is needed for mental health and well-being?” Here’s the article abstract:

Daiga Kamerāde, Senhu Wang, Brendan Burchell, Sarah Ursula Balderson, Adam Coutts, “A shorter working week for everyone: How much paid work is needed for mental health and well-being?” Social Science & Medicine, In press, corrected proof, Available online 18 June 2019, Article 112353.

There are predictions that in future rapid technological development could result in a significant shortage of paid work. A possible option currently debated by academics, policy makers, trade unions, employers and mass media, is a shorter working week for everyone. In this context, two important research questions that have not been asked so far are: what is the minimum amount of paid employment needed to deliver some or all of the well-being and mental health benefits that employment has been shown to bring? And what is the optimum number of working hours at which the mental health of workers is at its highest? To answer these questions, this study used the UK Household Longitudinal Study (2009–2018) data from individuals aged between 16 and 64. The analytical sample was 156,734 person-wave observations from 84,993 unique persons of whom 71,113 had two or more measurement times. Fixed effects regressions were applied to examine how changes in work hours were linked to changes in mental well-being within each individual over time. This study found that even a small number of working hours (between one and 8 h a week) generates significant mental health and well-being benefits for previously unemployed or economically inactive individuals. The findings suggest there is no single optimum number of working hours at which well-being and mental health are at their highest – for most groups of workers there was little variation in wellbeing between the lowest (1–8 h) through to the highest (44–48 h) category of working hours. These findings provide important and timely empirical evidence for future of work planning, shorter working week policies and have implications for theorising the future models of organising work in society.

So it looks like there’s not a linear relationship between working hours and well-being. Rather, well-being rises quickly for the first 8 hours, then stabilizes. So just as a month-long vacation doesn’t provide much more happiness than a week-long vacation, a full week of work doesn’t provide more well-being than a day of work.

Or as the article’s conclusion puts it,

there is no optimum number of working hours at which well-being and mental health are significantly at their highest. This study finds no evidence that the current full-time standard of working 36–40 h a week is the optimal for mental health and well-being, when job characteristics, such as hourly pay, occupational group and contract permanency are controlled… [T]he average effective dose of employment for mental health and well-being is only about the equivalent of one day per week.

“I have learned not to feel guilty whenever I close the laptop”

Stem cell researcher Dr Cristina Lo Celso talks the Academy of Medical Sciences about her work, and rest. This bit in particular jumped out at me:

I have learned not to feel guilty whenever I close the laptop to watch a movie or try some new recipes. Usually the best ideas come during or after breaks, and things that take hours to work through when I am tired will likely be solved in minutes once I am rested.

I think for lots of us, learning to not feel guilty when you stop work will have a ring of familiarity to it.

Lo Celso also has a nice bit about “learning to experiment outside the lab,” by trying new things in one’s non-work life. I’m convinced that one of the things doing sports can do for knowledge workers is give them a degree of physical courage, or ability to handle stress and discomfort, that translates into greater capacity for intellectual courage and risk-taking. (John Ratey’s Spark is great on the cognitive benefits of exercise.)

Circadian rhythms and work rhythms

The New York Times has an interesting piece about efforts to match work schedules to circadian rhythms:

At the Denmark offices of the pharmaceutical company AbbVie, employees design work schedules that take advantage of their biological strengths. A nine-hour training program helps them identify when they are ripe for creative or challenging projects, typically mornings for early risers and afternoons for late risers. Lower-energy periods are meant for more mundane tasks, like handling emails or doing administrative chores. Workers save commuting time by avoiding rush hour traffic, and can better mesh their personal and professional lives — for example, by getting their children from school in the afternoon, then working from home in the evening after the kids are in bed.

Employee satisfaction with work-life balance has risen from 39 percent 10 years ago, when the program launched, to nearly 100 percent today, according to company surveys. Last year the Denmark division of Great Place to Work, a global organization that ranks companies based on employee satisfaction, named AbbVie the top middle-size company in the country. “The flexibility actually empowers people to deliver the best possible results,” said Christina Jeppesen, the company’s general manager.

When I first started reading up on circadian rhythms and focus, it struck me that many of us spend some of our potentially most productive hours stuck in traffic. We hit a wakefulness peak– a period when we have the most energy and are most awake– about one or two hours after we wake up; we also have another, less intense one in the later afternoon.

But for most of us, that period gets spent inching our ways down the highway, not actually doing productive stuff. Far better, I thought, to spend that time at home working, and then come in later, after you’ve done a couple hours’ work.

Within groups, though, it’s worth thinking about how you might factor in chronotypes to match the kinds of work you’re doing:

Stefan Volk, a senior lecturer at the University of Sydney Business School, has suggested that businesses can leverage chronotypes to maximize team success. For example, members of a surgery team should have similar chronotypes because they need to be in top form simultaneously. But at a nuclear power plant, workers should have different energy peaks, so that someone is always on the alert.

“the first step to the investigation of the creative mind is the historical approach”

From the opening page of Rosamund E. M. Harding’s The Anatomy of Inspiration:

We venture to suggest, therefore, that the first step to the investigation of the creative mind is the historical approach…. Such historical research should be regarded as scientific and of psychological value and not merely read to pass amusingly an idle half-hour.

I’m definitely going to enjoy this!

Sleep, brain maintenance, and Alzheimer’s disease

More brains!

In Rest, I talk about how sleep turns out to be a form of what I call “active rest:” rest in which the body is actually doing things behind the scenes. One of the most important things it does is fire up glial cells, which you can think of as a kind of scaffolding and support system for the brain, to clear out the various toxins that build up in the brain during its normal activity. (You can think of these proteins as a kind of waste, just like the rest of the waste your body produces.)

A few years ago, neuroscientist Maiken Nedergaard observed this system at work in the brains of mice. Now, writing in Science News, Laura Bell reports on new research on human subjects indicating that “The brain may clean out Alzheimer’s plaques during sleep.” (Also, Bell’s article is a terrific overview of the history of this research, and its major lines of investigation.)

University of Wisconsin neuroscientist Barbara Bendlin has been working on the “Wisconsin Registry for Alzheimer’s Prevention, a study of more than 1,500 people who were ages 40 to 65 when they signed up” in 2001. So by now the Registry has 17 years of data, gathered from surveys, doctor’s exams, cognitive tests, even cerebral spinal fluid taps. (I love longitudinal studies like these: they reveal things that no other kind of research can.)

What Bedlin is finding is more evidence of a connection between sleep deprivation and the buildup of amyloid-beta protein fragments, which have been theorized to be one mechanism behind Alzheimer’s:

Bendlin and her colleagues identified 98 people from the registry who recorded their sleep quality and had brain scans. Those who slept badly — measured by such things as being tired during the day — tended to have more A-beta plaques visible on brain imaging….

In a different subgroup of 101 people willing to have a spinal tap, poor sleep was associated with biological markers of Alzheimer’s in the spinal fluid…. The markers included some related to A-beta plaques, as well as inflammation and the protein tau, which appears in higher levels in the brains of people with Alzheimer’s.

Now, it’s important to note that the casual arrow between poor sleep and Alzheimer’s isn’t yet clear: scientists aren’t yet willing to say with certainty whether bad sleep increases your odds of developing the disease, or whether the mechanisms that are responsible for Alzheimer’s also disrupt your sleep. As Bell puts it, Bell notes that

most studies have a chicken-and-egg problem. Alzheimer’s is known to cause difficulty sleeping. If Alzheimer’s both affects sleep and is affected by it, which comes first?

But even though “the direction and the strength of the cause-and-effect arrow remain unclear,” she continues,

approximately one-third of U.S. adults are considered sleep deprived (getting less than seven hours of sleep a night) and Alzheimer’s is expected to strike almost 14 million U.S. adults by 2050 (5.7 million have the disease today).

Either way, it’s yet another argument for taking sleep seriously, and getting enough of it.

New things on vacations

I’ve been thinking a bit about vacations, partly because I’m off to England tomorrow for some research, some interviews, and a little time off with my wife.

Big Ben and Parliament

My latest piece on Thrive Global is an argument for ignoring your children while on vacation:

Since my kids were old enough to pack their own suitcases, I’ve had one ironclad rule for family vacations: “I’m not responsible for your feeling entertained.”

What this means is, you’re old enough to be bored if you want, or not bored. You can choose to engage, or not. You’re in charge of your feelings.

I also talk about the science of vacations with University of Groningen postdoctoral fellow Jessica de Bloom on my podcast. De Bloom is a psychologist who’s looked at a number of important issues– when our happiness peaks on vacation, how long the benefits of vacations last, and what factors go into making our time on vacation seem good or bad.

Kauai

I think her work is very interesting, partly because some of her findings are kind of counterintuitive, but it’s also worth using it (and all scientific research on human subjects) with a grain of salt. For example, when you measure the amount of happiness that being on vacation generates and how long those benefits last, her work indicates that shorter, more frequent vacations are better for us. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t go on long trips: for example, you can get immersed in a culture, or forge deep friendships, or have other experiences that more than make up for the extra weeks.

My new Red Oxx bag

Travel and vacations can be complicated things, and  rewarding for all kinds of reasons; and I think what’s good about this work is how it helps us think more clearly about how we balance different demands and possibilities. The science doesn’t provide fixed recommendations; it clarifies options.

Anyway, I’m off to England shortly, to put some of those ideas into practice….

Using science in history: the case of spontaneous thinking

Within the discipline of history, the effort to use theories from the human and natural sciences– e.g., psychology, psychoanalysis, biology, and other fields– to explain historical change is one that’s yielded, at best, mixed results. “Psychohistory” has come and gone; ecological history has fared somewhat better; and efforts to find a biological explanations for the Salem witch trials or other examples of mass hysteria have been met with pretty healthy skepticism.

At the same time, I think it’s worth thinking through how we can at least use insights from other disciplines, perhaps not as overarching theories for explaining how history moves forward, but more like probes or sensors that help us be more attentive to phenomena that we might otherwise overlook. Of course, Rest is one long argument for paying attention to something we usually ignore in explaining why some people are more creative than others. I have an article in the Oxford Handbook of Spontaneous Thought: Mind-Wandering, Creativity, and Daydreaming on “Spontaneous Thinking in Creative Lives: Building Connections Between Science and History” that explores how else we could use the neuroscience of mind-wandering and creativity to deepen the history of ideas and science.

Here’s the abstract:

Scientists have only recently begun to explore spontaneous thinking. It might appear that as elusive a phenomenon as it is in the laboratory, it would be impossible to detect in the historical record. This essay argues that it is possible to make space for accounts of spontaneous thinking in historical accounts of creativity and discovery. It argues that historians can use scientific work on daydreaming, mind-wandering, and other forms of spontaneous thought to illuminate the history of ideas. It explains how historical research informed by science could generate new insights in the history of writing and thinking, the history of attitudes towards reason and inspiration, the daily practices of creative thinkers, and even elusive phenomena like sensory perception and sleep. With diligence and imagination, it will be possible to reconstruct the place of spontaneous thinking in the history of ideas.

“Afternoons are the Bermuda Triangles of our days:” Daniel Pink on time of day and performance

Daniel Pink has an excerpt from his new book When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing, that talks about the rather large effect circadian rhythms have on our daily performance:

Afternoons are the Bermuda Triangles of our days. Across many domains, the trough represents a danger zone for productivity, ethics, and health. Anesthesia is one example. Researchers at Duke Medical Center reviewed about 90,000 surgeries at the hospital and identified what they called “anesthetic adverse events”— either mistakes anesthesiologists made, harm they caused to patients, or both. Adverse events were significantly “more frequent for cases starting during the 3 p.m. and 4 p.m. hours.” The probability of a problem at 9 a.m. was about 1 percent. At 4 p.m., 4.2 percent. In other words, the chance of something going awry was four times greater during the trough than during the peak.

I think everyone has been in those after-lunch meetings where the room gets heavy, and people struggle to stay alert and pay attention. This is not just a function having had one too many martinis with lunch: it’s a universal thing. Yet the modern workday is organized with the assumption that every hour is identical to every other, and that we operate with the same level of effectiveness on any kind of task whether it’s 9:01 AM or 4:58 PM.

Indeed, in my study of companies that have shortened office hours, one of the consistent things they do is craft the workday to better match people’s daily rhythms: they let people work on their most important tasks when they’re most energetic, and put off less significant things (and many meetings) until later in the day, when you might have less energy and attention– but you might also need to spend less, as well.

Making to-do lists before bed can help you fall asleep (and solve problems)

The British Psychological Society’s Research Digest reports on a new study that finds that making lists before bed can “help you fall asleep more quickly.”

Before they tried to sleep, half of the participants spent five minutes “writing about everything you have to remember to do tomorrow and over the next few days”. The others spent the same time writing about any activities they’d completed that day and over the previous few days.

The key finding is that the participants in the to-do list condition fell asleep more quickly. They took about 15 minutes to fall asleep, on average, compared with 25 minutes for those in the “jobs already done” condition. Moreover, among those in the to-do list group, the more thorough and specific their list, the more quickly they fell asleep, which would seem to support a kind of off-loading explanation. Another interpretation is that busier people, who had more to write about, tended to fall asleep more quickly. But this is undermined by the fact that among the jobs-done group, those who wrote in more detail tended to take longer to fall asleep.

I write in REST about the creative benefits of stopping work in mid-sentence. It makes it easier to resume work the next day, and it gives your creative subconscious a chance to work on problems while your conscious self does other things. (John Cleese talks about discovering this when he was first writing comedy; Linus Pauling developed a whole method for solving problems around intentionally thinking about problems before bed.)

And when I’m deep in writing, I will spend a couple minutes before bed making a list of the things to write about the next morning. I’ve never tried to figure out if there’s a correlation between list-making and how well I sleep, but when I’m writing I rarely have trouble falling asleep. So maybe that’s an unintended benefit.

Anyway, while this is an early study, it suggests yet another reason to make brief lists before bed: not only will to help you solve problems faster (and even make progress while you sleep), it’ll help you sleep better.
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